This story is from the collection entitled ‘Speaker’s Land’, which aims to unveil the peculiar lives of ordinary people in China during the uncertainties of the age of Covid. Each adapted story relies on the testimony of an interviewee who narrates their personal story from Jan to May 2020, and some of the interviewees’ testimonies have inspired these characters and fictions. Jiang explains:
‘By writing Speaker’s Land, I intended to develop a new form of interview-based fiction which reimages characters and events after collecting oral testimonies from interviewees. This practice, which fits between the contemporary approach of interview-based non-fiction (e.g. Craig Taylor’s “Londoner”) and autofiction (e.g. Rachel Cusk’s “Outline”), has combined first-hand accounts of a moment in time and space with the formal possibilities offered by literary experimentation, and the resulting texts record not only fragmented reality, but the nuance of memory and narration’.
A note on an item of diction which may strike English readers as peculiar in context: Old Man: Literally ‘老头子’ in Chinese, an common idiom between old couples
I realise that I am about to wake up, despite the fragments of dream that linger. I lie in bed, and wait. A few minutes pass. I open my eyes, and it is still dark. I roll my eyes from side to side, then up and down. When I am fully awake, I lift my hands to the sides of my nose and press lightly about ten times, rub my hands up to my forehead, then down along both cheeks to the tip of my jaw, five times. This is an exercise for geriatrics I learned from TV. I’m much healthier after a year of practice.
I get up and sit still, rubbing my knees and rotating my ankles. I try to do these as gently as possible, in case my old man feels the vibration of the bed. It’s not yet time for him to be awake. I turn off the air conditioner, tuck him in and get out of bed. Looking out, it’s probably six o’clock now. The early hours of the day are always the same.
I wash briefly, get to the balcony, and turn on the washing machine. Leave it running with water for two minutes, and pour the detergent in. Until the foam comes up to the surface, I put the clothes in, and the lid on. This is a trick of mine to protect the texture of my clothes from bobbling.
I keep an eye on the room; telling by the sound, I know my old man is doing the same geriatric exercise I did. Soon after, he will pick up his phone, to check the overnight news and messages. Dawdling in bed for about half an hour, he will just be around when the laundry is done. Hanging the clothes is his duty.
Now, I have to make my way down to the ground floor. This is the hardest time of the morning. I broke my hip bone when I was travelling last year, but thanks to advances in technology, the doctor replaced mine with an artificial ceramic one. Doing daily activities is fine, but I find it extremely difficult to go up and down the stairs. However, in the past, this kind of injury was no different from paralysis. I’m fortunate.
I get to the kitchen, heat up a bun, then walk into the yard, enjoying the beautiful flowers while eating. In a winter like this, the camellia blooms alone. However, after the Chinese New Year, within a few weeks, peach blossoms, peonies, and carnations will all be in bloom. The garden will overflow with the beauties of springtime.
Soon, my old man comes to the yard with a bun. After strolling around for a few minutes, he takes up his tools to water the vegetables. This is his retirement pastime, a way to relieve the loneliness of having nothing to do. He is experienced; he sowed seeds of Pak Choi at the end of August last year, which were fully grown in three weeks, and remained ripe and ready to eat for a couple of months. There is also some crown daisy and spinach. He wants to harvest them all together for our family dinner today.
We have two daughters. The elder one and her husband work in a government department. After decades of hard work, they have finally become bosses, with high and stable incomes. Their daughter got married last year and gave birth. Now we’re a big family with four generations, happy and harmonious. Our younger daughter is a senior executive in a foreign company, but she didn’t develop a discerning eye for men, and married a guy with no ambition. My old man supported his son-in-law financially to start a construction materials company, which he then lost to gambling debts. During the divorce, they argued often and bitterly about property matters. I was so embarrassed. I couldn’t hold my head up in our neighbourhood. Fortunately, things have quietened down these days. Their son, though smart and diligent, was a wild card and refuses to find a stable job, instead wandering around and making art. His mother sent him here to live for a few years, to be closer to his high school. After his graduation, he insisted on moving out for no reason. We were sad for a while, but later we felt happier and more at peace, with just the two of us.
We used to worry that our two daughters would be too busy to come back and visit. But knowing my mind, they bring their kids over for dinner every Saturday. Over the decades, except for our younger daughter’s son who moved to a northern city, no one else has been away for long. And even he responded sensibly last year when he found out that his grandmother had broken a bone in a fall, and moved right back in nearby. At this age, I am more than satisfied with what they have done.
After taking care of the yard, my old man puts on a long coat and goes out for groceries. In his words, even if you go grocery shopping, you must be well-dressed. But it’s true that as a grandpa in his eighties, he looks like a younger man. He’s smug about it; once, at the hospital, the nurse flattered him, saying that he is like an old cadre with such a good temperament. He denied it outwardly but couldn’t be happier inside. I was right next to him, squinting at him, to see if he was ashamed.
Speaking of getting groceries, the old man causes me no end of worry. If it weren’t for my poor legs, I wouldn’t let him go. The crooks always focus on him because he looks honest. On one occasion, we came to the door of a hotel to find a girl holding a tricycle; she looked at him with wide eyes and said, “I grew some tea myself as presents to my relatives. But here they’ve left some, and I’m tired of lugging it around. I can offer you a cheap price.” He took it as if possessed, thinking he had got a great bargain. I winked at him, but he gave me no response. He opened the box, checked the quality, and happily paid for it. On our way back, he kept instructing me to trust people. I was speechless. Unsurprisingly, the whole box was weeds, with a thin layer of good tea on top to cover it up. He could only sit there and keep his grievances to himself. But he rarely learns his lesson, and this kind of thing happens every few days, which annoys me a great deal.
This winter is not that cold. I’m happy to spend more time in the yard before the cleaning lady comes. Apart from the flowers and vegetables, the most interesting thing is this stone dog that sits by the fence. I always felt that there was something missing in the house after my grandson left, so I wanted to get a dog. But my younger daughter said that it was not easy to keep a dog, that you had to have the patience to feed it and take it for walks. It happened that she was on a business trip and left her two dogs with me for a try-out. Only when I truly kept them did I understand. The old man took them out every day. They loved to dig in the mud and come home dirty. I couldn’t stand it, so I gave them back. But then, strangely, I missed them. My old man, knowing me, bought the stone dog as a substitute. Last winter, when my grandson came back, he found it interesting, and wrote a poem:
A stone dog has been staring at me for a long time,
intently but feigning.
So hard it tries.
Its gaze never drifts away.
It says that the weather is cold,
I say yes.
It says that it knows me,
I say yes.
It says that the birds are scattered and so are people.
I say I know.
It says that the old guy is about to die,
I say it doesn’t matter.
It says that you will die one day,
I say, that’s it, die.
It says that as a dog it went through all the things that seem unimportant,
But it never changes its look,
I say indeed, you never do.
I pet its back,
I feel sad;
You should have been a stone.
Every Saturday morning, the cleaner and I clean the house thoroughly to welcome the children. In fact, although I pay her a lot, I still do much of the work myself. I follow her and, each time she wipes a spot, I go over it again. But rather than take the hint, she has seized on an opportunity to be lazy. Especially on the first floor, that used to be the preserve of my grandson, she works perfunctorily. My old man and I were on the ground floor during the day, and on the second floor at night. It was odd that the first floor was the dustiest, despite being empty. How could she leave it for someone with a bad leg to clear up the mess? I didn’t say anything, but I took it to heart. When she’s done for the day, I’ll pay her in full and dismiss her. I know I need to be more critical, and not spare her feelings anymore.
It’s time for lunch. I stand up, walk to the kitchen, and put the leftover braised chicken into the microwave. Then I add some oil to the pan, place a handful of Pak Choi in and briefly stir-fry it. Finished.
I know my old man is home as soon as he’s at the door. I serve the dishes and put them on the dining table. When he comes in, the first thing I must do is to check what he has bought. He enters the kitchen with three bags, nothing more than the two live fish, pork and edamame that I asked him to buy. Confirming that there’s nothing extra, I heave a sigh of relief.
But when I empty out the edamame, I find that several of them are spoiled. Yet he casually dismisses this as unimportant.
I hold back my anger and say, “How was the grocery market today? Were there a lot of people?”
“There weren’t many people. Even the stalls were fewer, but the vegetables were all fresh.” He doesn’t seem to take the hint.
“I knew it. Letting you go grocery shopping is the same as giving money away.”
“What’s wrong?” He says with an innocent look.
I deliberately turn around with the edamame and say to myself, ‘Ay, this old man never takes my words seriously. I told him, edamame needs to be picked one by one, and don’t just take them when someone bags them for you.’
“Who’s willing to pick them one by one? My time is precious, unlike yours.”
“Your time is precious? You just sit in the yard drinking tea or fiddling with your phone every day. I’ve never seen you do anything serious.”
“You think you can do the shopping by yourself?” He raises his voice.
This old fool! His voice is amplified whenever I say he’s wrong. I feel aggrieved suddenly. “I must have been blind when I chose to marry you.”
He is silent. Maybe he knows that I will stop in a few minutes. He’s hungry, and goes straight to the table and eats. The phone rings: it’s our cleaning lady, telling me that she has some temporary family matters to attend to, and cannot come today.
I feel strange. “There’s no way that she knows we want to dismiss her today, right?”
“No. Doesn’t she want her salary?”
“Exactly. So, what do you think she’s up to?”
“Probably her son and daughter-in-law? More or less the same.”
“But she could have said. She isn’t one to keep things to herself.”
“Maybe it’s not easy to talk about.”
“Then ask the new cleaner to come a week later. I’ll settle her wages first next week.”
“Forget it. Don’t over-think. It’s not a big deal.”
After that, we both eat our meals in silence. Talking while eating is not good for health. In fact, it’s very dangerous: a bone could get stuck in the throat, or a grain of rice might block the trachea. He, on the other hand, still thinks of what has just happened, and plunks his chopsticks with Pak Choi on the table, pretending to be coughing. “How can I eat when it’s so bland?”
I take a bite, but it tastes just right, neither too salty nor too bland. I think to myself, ‘This old fool is so strange today, trying to pick a quarrel over nothing.’
“It’s so bland. I can’t even eat it,” he keeps insisting.
I get angry and parody him: “You’re not too old to taste, are you? You old fool.”
He finally gets his chance: “Don’t make excuses. Just admit it when you’re wrong!”
I get up and walk out, repeating, “Changed. Changed. My old fool has changed, not like before.”
He doesn’t say anything, as if he’s gratified by his victory in this little entanglement. He picks up his chopsticks again and takes a bite. I don’t really feel sad. I know such quarrels add some flavour to our lives.
After lunch, we take a nap as usual. Our latest quarrel doesn’t matter anymore, and neither of us says anything afterwards. I sit in the recliner, and he lies on the sofa, eyes closing from time to time; it won’t take long before I hear his snoring. At my age, dreams don’t come as often as they used to. Occasionally, I think about my little daughter, hoping that she will find a man soon and have someone to rely on. After all, staying single is lonely. Sometimes I think of my grandson, wishing that he will find a girlfriend, get married and have children soon. That way, when I pass away, I will have nothing to worry about.
Strangely enough, today I think of something from my childhood. There was a great famine at that time. Once I sneaked to a pond to pick water caltropbut was caught by a man. He shouted, “Okay, you thief. Wait and see.” I ran away until there was no one behind me. Somehow, his line recurs throughout my rest.
I think of some people who have died: my colleagues, friends and even some strangers I had only met once. Further back, I think of my father.
My father was a famous merchant in Shanghai. My family had hundreds of acres of land and 30 long-term workers. Later, he was appointed as Baozhang by the Nationalist Government, tasked with managing the inhabitants of the area. I was born in 1945, the second child in my family. I have no memory of that time, but while I grew up, I only heard two things from my brother; first, that we used to be a wealthy family, and second, that my father was a good man.
After the founding of new China in 1949, my father, as a capitalist and a Republican official, was labelled as a historical counter-revolutionary and was subjected to pidou again and again, despite his innocence. The labour movement back then was too much for anyone to stand. Those who didn’t join the mob would be seen as accomplices to counterrevolutionaries. Some workers in my family, although grateful to my father, still had to pretend to gnash their teeth in hatred, and to accuse others, including him, against their conscience.
I will never forget the sight of my father being tied up by the river, with people shouting slogans and pointing their fingers at his head to make him confess and tell what he had done wrong. Being young and ignorant, I joined the crowd, cheering the trumped-up charges. My father kept his head down and did not say a word as I shouted, “You traitor, you liar! Speak up!” Looking back, my motive was merely to win the crowd’s fleeting approval. Despite this, my father still loved me. No one in the family ever mentioned it again.
The movement slowly subsided as my father ‘admitted his mistake’. My mother would sneak out every night to throw gold, silver and some Qing Dynasty antiques into the river, just to escape accusations of being a ‘restored capitalist’. My father also tried hard to get himself accepted by the workers to keep out of trouble. However, a year later, the Land Reform Movement made our family a target, and even though he had already handed over his house and land, he had still been pidou for years.
One day, when I was 13, my mother rushed to my school and told me that my father was missing. We searched for a whole day, to no avail. We never saw him again after that day, and I heard from former workers that he had killed himself by repeatedly banging his head against the wall in the hospital, which the staff there refused to confirm, because we were enemies of society.
Then our family’s fortunes declined. My mother pawned her remaining possessions to feed us three, and after a year there was nothing left. Later, my brother went to the baths to learn how to give back rubs, while my mother took me to work as a maid for a newly wealthy family. By the time I was 16, I left school to support my family. I worked in a fertilizer factory and met my old man there, a fellow worker.
I was pretty, and many men pursued me. I was not so keen on my old man back then. But he was loyal and honest, and his family members were all workers, which could make up for the shortcomings of my family. It was in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution started, and I thought that if I married him, I would be safe from any movement. At first, we had a hard time because of the poverty. But it was good to have an uneventful life, good to conform by following people, and then he joined the Communist Party. I didn’t have to be alarmed anymore.
Decades later, a new policy proposed by Deng Xiaoping encouraged individuals to finance the conversion of state-owned enterprises into private ones. My old man and I had worked hard all our lives, and saved up a lot of money by being frugal. Despite my objections, he used all the money to buy shares in our fertilizer factory. To our surprise, we got rich. He had also been named an outstanding Communist Party member for several years, and, vicariously, I enjoyed the love and esteem he had earned from others.
My grandson once asked him innocently, “Grandpa, what exactly have you done for the country?”
My old fellow rubbed his head with a puzzled look. “In fact, even I don’t know.”
No one in our generation knew what we were doing or what we wanted. Everyone just followed the times, attempting to survive, but in the end, we got everything. Whereas with the new generation, everyone seems to know what they are doing and what they want, but they get nothing in the end.
I am just an old woman, and my experience means little to my grandson now that he’s grown up. It’s not that he has abandoned art for more pragmatic concerns, but rather that he is compromising for the family. He is sacrificing for me and my old fellow by moving back, and he’ll have to sacrifice for his mother in the future. Maybe only when he’s as old as I am will he get the freedom he wants to pursue his longing for art.
Everyone here is like that. I never got to the point of thinking when I was young that I would really be happy when I grew old.
It’s already 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and it seems that I failed to get to sleep. My old man is still snoring, and I put a shirt on him in case he catches a cold. Usually, he will wake up in half an hour to make a cup of tea, and sit in the yard fiddling with his phone. I used to get angry when I saw him smiling at the screen, but now I understand. I understand, but without empathy. I’m just afraid he’ll get too close and play too much, which is bad for his eyes.
I go to the kitchen, open the fridge, take out the ribs and the pork belly he bought, and put them in the sink to soak. Fifteen minutes later, I transfer them to a pot full of water, add ginger slices and cooking wine to boil together. I take them out until the water is coated with a layer of froth. This should remove any bad smell or impurities from the raw meat. I then fill another pot with clean water, pour the ribs in and put the lid on. When it’s boiled, I let them simmer. Then wait for an hour to add corn, and cook for another hour before it’s ready to serve. This is my grandson’s favourite dish. The mixture of fresh ribs and sweet corn is fabulous.
I put the pork belly aside in a bowl and wait until four o’clock to make braised pork. Strangely enough, when I was a kid, I was so happy to have braised pork that I would even lick all the juices out of the bowl. Once my living standards improved, I didn’t want it any longer, thinking it too sweet, greasy and fattening. But now that I’m older, I love it again, and so does my old man; he wants me to make it almost every day, and this dish has not changed for more than a decade.
The two fish are alive and jumping around, splashing water everywhere. I put a lid on the bucket. When the old man comes to deal with it, I’ll definitely hold him accountable.
I take the edamame, and sit on a small stool in the yard, where I can see the clock in case the rib soup gets overcooked. Peeling the edamame is tough, but I ask him to buy them every couple of days. It’s not because I love to eat them, but it helps me to kill time in the afternoon, so I won’t get bored.
Actually, there’s no point in thinking about the old days, because you can’t go through them all over again. Every elder has experienced something, more or less. At last, it’s all about enjoying the moment and living every single day. Apart from that, the most important thing is to keep healthy, otherwise you will suffer a lot.
Although my elder brother is still alive, he has had a stroke, so is wheelchair-bound and needs to be looked after. It’s good to have filial children, but anyone would be annoyed if this dragged on for too long and affected their own lives. When I was a child, my mother preferred sons to daughters. She gave the most food to my brother, and left me with the remains. He was good to me though, and would secretly share a portion with me. However, in his old age, he became extraordinarily stingy. I advised him to give his children some compensation, because they’re not having easy lives, but he had nothing to say, so I let the matter go.
I hear footsteps. It seems that my old man finished with his phone. I am about to get even with him over the bucket lid thing when he hurries over to me, repeating, “Our elder girl is calling.”
I pick up the phone and see her worried face saying, “Mom, the bureau just announced that there is an epidemic in Wuhan. It’s very serious. It’s already spreading out. We are unable to come today.”
I feel upset, “Oh, but I’ve already made all the dishes.”
She says, “Dishes are no big deal. This disease can cause death. The elderly is the most vulnerable group. So how can we come over?”
My old man echoes next to me, “Okay. Take care of yourselves.”
I ask, “So when will it get better?”
She says, “No one knows right now. You two should try not to go out from today onwards. Stay away from the grocery market. We’ll buy anything you need online and ship it over.”
My old man promises, “Okay, okay. Don’t worry.”
He then hangs up the phone.
I ask him, “Why did she not inform us earlier?”
“Maybe she just got the information.”
I mutter, “Then the little girl will call later.”
I check the time, get up and walk to the kitchen. The smell of the ribs is good. I open the lid and put the corn in with a little salt and water, cover the pot again, and wait. The old man acts as if nothing’s happened, scrapes the fish scales with a cigarette in his mouth and says, “Put it in the freezer when I’m done with it. We can make dishes in the days to come.” There seems to be no need to mention the bucket anymore.
As expected, the phone rings again. His hands are covered in blood-stained scales. So, I get the phone and have to listen to our younger daughter saying the same thing as her sister, but taking this chance, I remind her to keep an eye on my grandson. He won’t obey staying at home rules – he’ll go out to make his fancy art stuff.
I heat oil in another pot, stir-fry with rock sugar on low heat until it bubbles, and put the pork belly in, so that the sugar reduction will be the coating of the meat. Then I add some soy sauce and continue to fry for two to three minutes. The meat and ingredients mix and give off an aroma. I pour boiling water in and turn the heat up.
I wait as the old man washes his hands. He then sits down on the small stool I placed in the yard, playing with his phone again. Time passes by. I serve the rib soup and braised pork in two bowls, put the edamame in the pot and boil them. Pour out the water a few minutes later, and mix them with the salted vegetables. Now all the dishes are done.
It’s five o’clock. I open the kitchen door and, as usual, shout, “My old man, dinner is ready!”
He whistles in reply. “Coming. Coming.”
We eat the food in silence. But, from his contented smile, I know the braised pork tastes good. Every day after dinner, he sits for an hour or so, eating edamame and drinking. Although the doctor asked him to pay attention to his dietary habits and not to drink, he never listens. I don’t bother to mention it anymore.
Later, I run my hair in front of the mirror, put on a silk shirt and take out my leather shoes. Like the old man, I would dress comfortably at home, but with style when I go out. He puts down his wine glass with a clang and rushes to the door, bellowing at me, “What are you doing?”
“Just take a stroll in the neighbourhood,” I reply.
“We’ve been told not to go out!”
“There’s no one out there. No big deal.”
“You’re dicing with death!”
I get annoyed now. The old man is out of his mind. I don’t say a word but keep going.
He glares at me and says, “Don’t you dare try going out today.”
I know he is sincerely angry, for I have never seen him so serious before. I pretend to be aggrieved and say, “Okay. Okay. Then I won’t go out. Why were you shouting at me?”
He sees me turning around and closes the door immediately. Like a child who has made a mistake, I walk inside with my head down, but still muttering, “Changed. Changed. My old fool has changed, not like before.”
When he returns to the table, I take off my shirt and walk to the stairs. Going upstairs is no picnic, but it’s still easier than going down. I take a shower and throw the dirty clothes in the bucket by the balcony door, and then lie on the bed. The old man usually washes the dishes after dinner, sits in the yard for a while, and then comes up for a shower. I’ll take time to do the same exercises as in the morning. As long as I pay attention to my body, I will stay healthy.
It’s 7.30 pm. I turn on the TV and watch a drama series. It tells a love story that takes place in the Republic of China – a suave and wealthy young master goes on an outing with a group of friends and meets a schoolgirl, with whom he falls in love at first sight. In order to win her love, he waits at the school gate every day, and follows her as soon as she comes out. But she manages to throw him off each time with her amazing wit. The schoolgirl’s unyielding personality captivates the rich young man, and he even spends a lot of money buying the house next door to hers, offering to make friends with her relatives, which only deepens her resentment instead.
After 8, the old man goes upstairs to take a shower, throws his dirty clothes in the bucket, and then leans on the bed next to me, watching this drama together. But having missed the first episode, he is confused about the characters’ relationships, and wants me to explain, which would spoil my enjoyment. I ignore him and he, after watching for a while without understanding, takes out his phone and laughs to himself.
It’s not even 10 o’clock when the snoring starts beside me. I tuck him in and touch his face. He has dark skin. Except for at the temples, his hair has largely fallen out, but luckily, it’s still all black, and makes him look chipper.
After a while, I turn off the television and go to the bathroom. This is a good habit, because it’s often hard for me to fall asleep again if I hold my pee in and have to get up at midnight. I lie down beside him again, and close my eyes. A few minutes pass. I realise that I’m about to begin dreaming, despite the layers of consciousness that remain.
Narrated by Huiying Wang
Yichun Jiang is an independent filmmaker and fiction writer who has made three shorts and a feature film before shifting the artistic focus from filmmaking to fiction writing. His latest film ‘Intimacy’ was screened at Madrid International Film Festival, and his creative fiction ‘The Great Man’ was recently published in The Opiate. He has completed his first short-story collection, Speaker’s Land, which attempts to unveil the peculiar lives of ordinary people in China during the uncertainties of the age of Covid.
Baozhang was the captain of Bao, who oversaw about one hundred families and was intended to act as buffer between the people and the government. The Bao system was an invention of Wang Anshi, a chancellor of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) and remained in place until 1937.
Pidou: to criticise and denounce somebody publicly for their errors. The victim of ‘Pidou’ was forced to admit various crimes before a crowd of people who would verbally and physically abuse the victim until they confessed.
 The Land Reform Movement was a campaign by the Communist Party during the early People’s Republic of China. The campaign involved mass killings of landlords by tenants and land redistribution to the peasantry.
 Republic of China was a sovereign state based in mainland China from 1912 to 1949, prior to the relocation of its government to Taiwan as a result of in the Chinese Civil War.